Biography (Critical Survey of Mystery & Detective Fiction, Revised Edition)
Brett Halliday was born Davis Dresser in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Justus Dresser and Mary Dresser. Growing up in Texas, he ran away from home at the age of fourteen and enlisted in the army. Two years later his true age was discovered, and he was discharged. Traveling throughout the Southwest, he worked variously in construction, on oil fields, digging graves, and other such jobs. During the 1920’s he attended college in Indiana, where he received a certificate in civil engineering. For a while he worked as an engineer and surveyor before finding himself down and out in Los Angeles—“hungry, jobless, and broke.”
In 1927 Halliday began to write, failing to win the Dodd, Mead Red Badge contest. Finding engineering work was difficult during the Depression, and he turned to the pulp magazines. Under various pseudonyms, he wrote romances, mysteries, and Westerns. For Mum’s the Word for Murder (1938), his first mystery, he used the pen name Asa Baker. In 1939, after having been rejected twenty-two times, Dividend on Death, the first Mike Shayne detective novel, appeared under the Brett Halliday pseudonym. Although Shayne was not originally conceived of as a series, when Bill Sloane, Halliday’s editor at Henry Holt, asked for a second book, Halliday turned out The Private Practice of Michael Shayne (1940), a book that later was sold to Hollywood.
Halliday was married three times. Interestingly, his wives—Helen McCloy, Kathleen Rollins, and Mary Savage—were also writers. Under the pseudonym Hal Debrett, he wrote two mystery novels with Rollins. Halliday had one child, Chloe. In addition to his writing, Halliday was the editor of Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine. He also owned a publishing firm, Torquil and Company, whose books were distributed by Dodd, Mead and Company.
Halliday’s travels through the Southwest formed the background for a distinguished group of crime tales that Ellery Queen called his “engineering stories.” In this group are “Human Interest Stuff,” which is frequently anthologized, and “Extradition,” which won for Halliday second prize in an Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine contest.
Halliday lived the latter part of his life in Santa Barbara, California. He died in Montecito, California, on February 4, 1977, at the age of seventy-two.